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Asian Champions Trophy: India beat Pakistan to win consolation bronze


The Asian Champions Trophy might lack an overall context but for India, the last one week has shown that their path to an Asian Games gold, thus to the Paris Olympics, won’t be as straightforward as many would have imagined.

On almost all counts – be it the depth of talent or the amount of investment, the number of matches they play or the scale of recent achievements – the Tokyo Olympics bronze medalists are head and shoulders above the rest of Asia. Curiously, though, the team has struggled to translate that dominance on the field, as evidenced by their performance in Dhaka over the past week.

South Korea scripted a stunning comeback, equalising with 0.01 seconds remaining, to beat Japan 4-2 via tie-breakers to win the gold medal. India, meanwhile, huffed their way past a resilient Pakistan, who haven’t qualified for the last two Games, beating them 4-3 to finish third in the five-team tournament. It was a classic India-Pakistan match: free-flowing attacks, porous defence, lacking structure and discipline and plenty of goals.

From a bigger picture point of view, however, the bronze medal at the Asian Champions Trophy holds little significance. If anything, it has only extended India’s wait for a continental title.

The last time India outrightly won an Asian competition was four years ago, when the Sjoerd Marijne-coached team clinched the Asia Cup. Since then, they have lost in the semifinal twice – in the Asian Champions Trophy this week and at the 2018 Asian Games – and the only final they reached during this period, at the ACT in 2018, got washed out due to heavy rains.

India only have themselves to blame for being unable to stamp their authority on Asian hockey, despite routinely pulling off podium finishes in global events. On most occasions, complacency and indiscipline have contributed to the slip-ups. And India nearly tripped once again because of that on Wednesday against Pakistan.

Nothing illustrated this better than India’s plight in the closing stages of the match. After overcoming a 2-1 half-time deficit, India secured a two-goal cushion in the final quarter. But soon after going 4-2 up, they relaxed, allowed Pakistan to reduce the margin, then made clumsy tackles in desperation, leading to the team getting reduced to nine men, which nearly cost them the win.

The reason India finished on the podium at the Olympics was they stuck to the game plan, were always strong on the ball, made sharp runs off possession, played aggressively without sacrificing their structure and maintained a high level of discipline.

Half of the players from the medal-winning side were rested as coach Graham Reid used this tournament to give opportunities to some players who hadn’t played internationally for more than two years. The lack of exposure showed throughout the competition in terms of decision making with the ball, off-the-ball running and the general inability to cope up with the pressure and intensity of the games.

In the last two years, owing to the pandemic, India had focussed single-mindedly on preparing the players for the Olympics. But the Junior World Cup and the Asian Champions Trophy have shown the amount of work that needs to be done to bring those outside the Olympic core group up to scratch.

The fact that India fielded a second-string side in this competition can’t be an excuse either as other teams have had it worse. Pakistan, for instance, couldn’t even train properly for a couple of years due to a paucity of funds while South Korea hadn’t had meaningful international games for this duration. Japan, like India, had rested some of their Olympic stars.
Still, India couldn’t beat South Korea, lost to Japan and struggled to beat Pakistan. Malaysia, who didn’t travel to Dhaka due to Covid-related travel restrictions but will most certainly compete at the Hangzhou Asian Games where the stakes will be high, will only make it trickier for India.

Since the purpose of this competition was to give the players some match time, India won’t panic yet. But as the team heads into a busy 2022, the Asian Champions Trophy will serve as a timely wake-up call.





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